Melissa Maerz
September 25, 2013 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Lowland

Current Status
In Season
Jhumpa Lahiri

We gave it an A

When you hear that a novel features a ”twist,” you might imagine a big reveal: A man you thought was dead is alive, or he’s actually a woman. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is a master of dramatic turns, but not in the conventional sense. She lets tension build slowly until something snaps. What she twists is you.

In The Lowland, pressure grows between two brothers in India during the ’60s. Udayan, the younger one, is the leader of the two, a firebrand compared with the more practical Subhash. They’re inseparable as kids, but their lives diverge when Subhash moves to Rhode Island for college and Udayan stays in Calcutta, where he gets involved with a militant Communist movement and defies his parents by marrying Gauri, a young intellectual. Without disclosing too much, Udayan’s decisions have grave repercussions for his family, long after Subhash has a wife and child of his own.

It’s telling that Gauri studies dialectical reasoning — a form of philosophical discussion that she says acknowledges ”change and contradiction, as opposed to established reality” — because Lahiri uses it cleverly here. Every character’s actions are up for debate, and nobody pretends to be a better person than he or she is. That makes it hard to judge anyone too harshly, even when the sins of the parents really mess up the kids.

The Lowland is about how history is just the same mistakes made by different generations. But it’s also about how time can trick you into believing that change is possible. While writing her dissertation, Gauri wonders, ”What caused certain moments to swell up like hours, certain years to boil down to a number of days?” Lahiri plays with that question brilliantly, devoting pages to fleeting moments, only to deliver the book’s most life-shattering event in a telegram just seven words long. From hour to hour, these characters may be free, but what happens to them from decade to decade feels fated. The Lowland offers new revelations right up to the last page, creating a palpable dread of what’s to come. Some say that a twist is most effective when the reader figures it out a split second before the author reveals it. But Lahiri shows that a twist can be even more devastating when you’ve been afraid that it might happen all along. A

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